Let’s state for the record that Walid Abdul-Wahab ’13 is not Amish. His company publicity photo shows him in a field sporting Amish-appropriate attire (a straw hat, suspenders and a mustache-less beard), but it’s simply a reflection of his close ties to the Plain community: The Middle Eastern-originated beverage he markets comes from Amish and Mennonite family farms scattered across the American heartland.
Asked if his beard is a marketing gimmick, the 22-year-old Abdul-Wahab smiles sheepishly: “No, no. I’ve always had that. I’m a Muslim.”
Raised in Saudi Arabia, the USC-educated entrepreneur is founder of Desert Farms, America’s first retail distributor of camel’s milk. Sold by roadside camel herders in the Middle East, camel’s milk is gaining traction in America among health-conscious consumers looking for cow’s milk alternative. The Wall Street Journal even declared camel’s milk the new “it” drink.
Low in fat, camel’s milk tastes similar to cow’s milk, with a saltier finish. An Indian research center has linked it to improved wound healing and healthier response to blood sugar in patients with diabetes. Though it’s scientifically unproven, some believe it might help people with neurological disorders—which explains why about 90 percent of Desert Farms’ customers are the parents of children with autism.
When a Bedouin goes into the desert, he sustains himself purely on camel milk.Walid Abdul-Wahab
“It keeps me going all day,” adds Abdul-Wahab, who downs a 16-ounce bottle every morning. “I don’t know how to explain it. But when a Bedouin goes into the desert, he sustains himself purely on camel milk.”
The idea for Desert Farms sprouted from Abdul-Wahab’s marketing class at USC Marshall School of Business and was refined in his financial entrepreneurship course. His senior year, it earned him the school’s prestigious Marcia Israel Award for entrepreneurship. The USC Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies helped launch the fledgling business through its AIM accelerator program last summer, providing downtown office space and alumni mentoring.
Less than a year since launching, Abdul-Wahab ships about 6,000 bottles a week milked from Amish-owned camels in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri to people and retailers around the country. In California, Desert Farms products sit alongside bottles of raw juices and coconut water in more than 100 retail locations including Whole Foods, Lassens and Rainbow Groceries.
Sold as milk or kefir, raw or gently pasteurized, fresh or frozen, Desert Farms’ products run $16 to $18 a pint. Sales are expected to reach $200,000 by year’s end, and the company is growing. Abdul-Wahab, who favors paid interns, many of them USC students, hopes to have 10 staffers on board soon.
Abdul-Wahab ships about 6,000 bottles a week milked from Amish-owned camels.
Desert Farms’ biggest shareholder is the founder’s father, a successful steel mill owner in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. What does Dad think of his entrepreneurial son?
“He always makes fun of me,” says the younger Abdul-Wahab, the second of five children. “He says, ‘I sent you to USC to study finance, and now you’re a farmer!’ But when I was featured on the Wall Street Journal website, he was very happy.”
Non-perishable and long shelf-life products are an important hedge against the vicissitudes of camel milk production. Last fall, Abdul-Wahab introduced a line of camel-milk soaps. Powdered camel milk, ice cream and chocolates are coming soon, he says.
As for the future, Abdul-Wahab is inspired by Dubai, where camel products run the gamut from cream to cheese. They even have a camel-milk signature coffee, he says: “They call it camel-ccino.”